Opposition from landowners near Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park killed a proposal to reestablish bighorn sheep on their historic range in the rocky hills above the Jefferson River.
The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission Thursday voted down the proposal after a couple landowners testified they didn’t want the animals on their property.
“It’s a totally inappropriate area for it based on their standards,” said Terry Murphy, a state senator and landowner near Cardwell whose property was included in the reintroduction area.
Murphy said while FWP’s sheep plan calls for releasing them on public land, the proposed transplant would have put bighorns primarily on private ranch lands.
The proposal called for bighorn transplants in the Bull Mountains north of Whitehall, near Doherty Mountain east of Cardwell and at Lewis and Clark Caverns. Biologists were aiming to establish a herd that could sustain hunting within a
But under the state’s statewide bighorn management plan, the state has to get agreements with landowners who may have sheep wander onto their property. Bighorns and domestic sheep spread diseases to each other when they have contact.
However, there are no large sheep producers in the areas around Whitehall. But the landowners around the Bull Mountains and Doherty balked and would not agree to the transplants, said Pat Flowers, FWP Bozeman manager.
“We did not have anywhere near the majority of landowners in favor of them,” he said.
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Biologists hoped to continue to move forward at Lewis and Clark Caverns but Murphy and owners of the Cary Ranch also would not agree.
Ron Aasheim, FWP spokesman, said the transplant proposal is dead and would have to start from scratch with a new assessment of the area.
Murphy, who raises cattle, said his opposition wasn’t because of disease concerns, but rather not wanting bighorns to compete with livestock for forage and other issues.
“They would do a lot of damage to fences and there’s a certain amount of competition for the forage,” he said. “Those are all parts of the reasons public land areas are emphasized for looking for new territory for them.”
The Montana Wool Growers Association came out in support of the transplant last month when spokesman John Helle spoke at a Whitehall meeting. He said the easiest places for bighorns are already occupied, meaning it will take compromise for bighorn to expand their range.
Flowers said FWP will go back to the drawing board to continue looking for places where sheep can be transplanted to try to reach the statewide goal of establishing 10 new herds.
“It’s a challenge finding any location where it provides suitable habitat for sheep and where we can get the agreement of any affected landowners,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we’re not going to stop looking or stop trying.”